EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Nov. 23, 2003, edition of the Tyler Courier-Times--Telegraph.
WINONA — Woodrow Wiggins turns off the television whenever shows about President John F. Kennedy or Lee Harvey Oswald air.
He tries to forget about it, but after 40 years, he still hears that bang.
Wiggins was a Dallas police lieutenant at the time, in charge of the jail and dispatch offices. He stood directly behind Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning Dallas Times-Herald photo, his face looms behind the suspected JFK assassin.
Sitting at his kitchen table Friday with his beloved Chihuahua FiFi close by, Wiggins, called “Wig” by fellow lawmen, recounted the historic weekend that shook the world.
He was off duty on that Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. The police station couldn’t reach him. When he finally heard the news on the radio and called in, the station had things under control. So he went into work as usual Sunday morning.
“We didn’t know they were going to move him (Oswald to the jail),” Wiggins said. “Nobody knew that. We just knew it was going to be some time that day.”
When they arrived, he opened the door of the underground garage to let them in and stepped back so they could pass him. Out of nowhere Wiggins heard a voice: “So you’re the man who shot the president.” Then came the bang. He didn’t know the gunman was Ruby, a burlesque club owner he knew well. He thought it was a detective gone crazy. No one else was supposed to be behind the police tape.
Wiggins believes the sequence of events that unfolded that day and the sudden changes in plans made without anyone’s knowledge show the Oswald shooting was spontaneous.
“Jack Ruby could not have planned this — it couldn’t have been planned,” he said.
Ruby had apparently gotten a call from one of his strippers who needed money that morning. He parked his car in the parking lot across the street from the police station and walked the block up to Western Union. Finished with his business, he was walking back to his car when he saw the commotion. As detectives were leading Oswald into the garage, Ruby somehow slipped under the police tape and the rest is history, Wiggins said.
How Ruby got past the tape is another story. An officer had been posted to stand guard and would never have let Ruby through. But the garage exit was blocked by an armored truck, so a “black and white” was driven out of the entrance the wrong way. The officer on guard got a call to block traffic. With Ruby dressed in a suit and surrounded by the commotion, he looked just like another detective.
“It was strictly accidental that this man even got in,” Wiggins said.
Leading Oswald into the building in plain sight wasn’t the initial arrangement.
Officials had planned to hide Oswald in the floorboard of the armored truck and have a police cruiser follow. By the time people realized Oswald wasn’t in the car, the armored truck would be inside, and Oswald locked in a cell, Wiggins said.
But when police got calls from people threatening to blow up the armored truck, they scrapped the plan.
Ruby later told Wiggins he had planned to shoot Oswald three times because he had allegedly shot Kennedy three times. Wiggins’ former partner Detective L.C. Graves stopped him after the first shot when he grabbed the gun. He caught the hammer of the gun on the web of his hand, stopping what would have been the second shot.
Since Wiggins was in charge, he immediately turned around, went into his office and called an ambulance. He didn’t find out Ruby was the gunman until they brought him to his office a few minutes later.
“Good gosh, that’s Jack Ruby that shot him,” he thought.
A few hours later, when things settled down, Wiggins went to Ruby’s cell and asked him why.
“I did what you would like to do. You couldn’t do it, but I could, and I got the opportunity and I did it,” Ruby told him.
A COP WANNABE
Ruby came by the station often and went out of his way to be friendly to cops, Wiggins said.
“He called me ‘Wig;’ everybody at the station did,” Wiggins said. “He always wanted to help. He wanted to be on the good side of the police officers all the time. He was always trying to do something for the police department.”
Wiggins remembers his days as a detective when he arrested people out of Ruby’s club, but at 85, he couldn’t recall whether he had ever personally arrested Ruby before the shooting.
He does remember Ruby bringing food for the officers. Whenever the dispatchers would have to stay late, “you bet he’d be up there with a basket of sandwiches,” Wiggins said.
Ruby was his own security at his strip joint and back then, it was legal for a business owner to carry a gun in his place of business and to and from work. Ruby most likely carried it with him wherever he went because of the amount of cash that came in and out of his club, he said.
“To tell you the truth, he would have liked to be a policeman,” Wiggins said.
Some say Ruby had a bad temper, but Wiggins said he never saw that side of him.
“I found out later that this man killing the president really bothered him,” he said. “He got the opportunity, that’s his explanation for it.”
After the shooting, Wiggins began getting calls from people wanting to help Ruby. A lawyer from Florida told him he was raising money and that Ruby would never see the penitentiary. He didn’t — he later died of cancer.
GETTING BACK TO NORMAL
Things didn’t change much at the police department after the Oswald shooting. The department didn’t feel the same brunt of hostility toward Dallas that came after Kennedy’s death, he said.
“The police department did nothing wrong,” Wiggins said. “The police department arrested Oswald the same day. They did a good job.”
Wiggins’ life didn’t change much, either. The media hounded the chief and other officials, but not a lowly lieutenant, he said. Because his face is in the award-winning snapshot, he did have to sign quite a few autographs over the years. A woman from London once sent him four postcards to put his John Hancock on.
People would come up to his house and peer in the windows every year on the anniversary weekend of the 35th president’s assassination.
“It got old,” he said. “But time took care of that.”
Wiggins said he never thought about what may have happened if Ruby had missed his target. Standing so close behind Oswald, “there was too much excitement for me to think about it could have been me.”
After more than 27 years at the Dallas Police Department and 10 years after the drama, Wiggins retired in 1973 and moved to Holly Lake with his wife Menges to become a golf machine — as much as 7 days a week, 55 holes a day. Widowed, he now lives in Winona close to his children.
Still, after 40 years, when anything about that weekend pops up, Wiggins turns off the television.
“So much of it (on TV) couldn’t possibly be right,” he said.
He never believed any of the conspiracy theories. And the movie “JFK” had it all wrong — the actor playing Wiggins was a “fat man.”
But his family is proud and they watch Wiggins in the limelight whenever they can.
Just the other day, his 6-year-old great-grandson called him to say he had seen his “pa-paw” on TV.
Casey Knaupp covers northern Smith and Henderson counties and can be reached at (903) 596-6289 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.